Meditations from the Morrell Salon: Dinner 2

Article
Secrets
24 January 2017

By Tarajia Morrell
Photos by Katie June Burton

Personal Terroir: Martha’s Vineyard chef-farmer, Chris Fischer, brings his principles to our plates at Morrell Salon

It’s not enough that a chef cooks for me; I hope that they will tell me a story through their food, too. It’s a lofty request, I know, but I crave that narrative. Of course through food I’m looking for flavor and sustenance; however, eating is so much more gratifying when the chef can also communicate his principles and reveal what he holds dear throughout the course of a meal.

With this in mind, for my last Morrell Salon dinner, I invited Martha’s Vineyard native, chef-farmer Chris Fischer to cook in my small galley New York City kitchen. When I first ate his food three years ago, in his Fish & Rose pop-up in Nolita, Chris’s connection to his roots —his terroir, so to speak— was evident in every bite.

A peek inside: Tarajia setting up
A peek inside: Tarajia setting up

Proprietor of Beetlebung Farm in Chilmark, on the southeastern, Atlantic-facing side of the island, and author of the James Beard Award-winning Beetlebung Farm Cookbook, Chris’s family has been farming on Martha’s Vineyard for 12 generations, dating back to 1660. Chris, who grew up in a “shack” between the Vineyard’s brackish Menemsha Pond and the ocean, says his commercial fisherman dad fed him Vineyard oysters when he was in diapers —as well as geese, deer and duck shot by his father, and vegetables from their garden.

“I got exposed to the best flavors and food possible, and it created this imprint of what I believe to be delicious and nutritious food that has given me a physiological reaction of joy,” Chris explained to me. “When a chef or the person responsible for the food has that reaction, that’s the only way to really celebrate the importance of the product when you are feeding someone else.” After cooking in New York City at restaurants such as Mario Batali’s Babbo, it became clear to him just how fine the Vineyard’s native ingredients truly are, so he returned there to continue his family’s tradition of farming, as well as to cook. His food is a love letter to the Vineyard’s produce, wildlife and the bountiful surrounding waters. Intentionally shrewd with his seasoning, Chris allows the natural flavors of land and sea to shine through.

Ingredients being prepped on the terrace on an unseasonably warm evening
Ingredients being prepped on the terrace on an unseasonably warm evening

As Chris and sous chef Lauren Schaeffer arrived at my apartment, I was struck by how much of the Vineyard Chris literally carried with him. A heavy bucket of brackish Quitsa clams, waiting to be shucked and served with ground cherry mignonette as an amuse bouche, rested in a bucket on the terrace. A U.S. Postal Service carton contained a wet tangle of fresh seaweed, picked the previous morning from the rocky Martha’s Vineyard shores.

I watched Chris rinse the briny strands several times, dress them with lemon juice and olive oil, and serve them later that evening as a graceful salad with raw wild bass and sliced radishes. Just as I’d hoped, the dish completely evoked Chris’s principles and terroir. Honoring the natural environment by caring for it is central to Chris’s perspective. “My work is to celebrate deliciousness, but also to tell the story of where food comes from because when people understand the context they are more likely to support those things.”

The calm before the chaos…with flowers from Dean & DeLuca
The calm before the chaos…with flowers from Dean & DeLuca

Our main course of Beetlebung Farm’s own smoked pork jowl and braised ribs, served with lentils, beets and fennel, typified the austere grace of Chris’s food, which was literally from his farm to our table. Part of the pleasure was that I could taste the work that had gone into it—not because it was a complicated recipe or had been fussily plated, but rather the effort and attention that had gone into raising the produce right.

Andrea “Red” Barnes, our earnest and spiritual wine director for the evening, who has worked at New York City institutions such as Chanterelle and Il Buco, echoed Chris’s enthusiasm for tasting terroir. For the entrée, Red paired Hudelot Noellat Vosne Romanee 2014, a young mineral-rich wine that stood up to the unctuous pork. “It is lean and sassy and therefore unafraid of all that fat,” Red told me of the bright cherry-noted Burgundy. She added that we shouldn’t be afraid of young wines from the region, that “Burgundy will see you through.”

Martha’s Vineyard-foraged seaweed salad with wild bass & radishes from Dean & DeLuca
Martha’s Vineyard-foraged seaweed salad with wild bass & radishes from Dean & DeLuca

What had made me want Chris in particular to join Morrell Salon is that he and I both share an intense connection to the place where we were raised, which each of us has returned to as adults. For me, yes, it’s New York City, but moreover it’s a home where food and wine were paramount: my parents’ livelihoods, but also sources of endless inspiration, pleasure and expressions of love. They taught me to live by my meals. Having said that, I know that a small unfamiliar home kitchen may pose its problems for professional chefs who are used to commercial and often custom kitchens, yet, Chris embraced the textures and challenges. “I don’t enjoy when you are in a kitchen and have every Pacojet and Cryovac and sous vide machine, because it just becomes formulaic or sterile. The idea of problem solving, things breaking and being imperfect, makes everything so much better.”

Quitsa clams with ground cherry mignonette
Quitsa clams with ground cherry mignonette

Over a dessert of Martha’s Vineyard’s Mermaid Farm granita with Chilmark Chocolate dust, Vineyard florist, Krishana Collins, got hints from film producer Annabelle Dunne about her upcoming Joan Didion documentary (which she’s making with her cousin, filmmaker Griffin Dunne, about their aunt). Screenwriter Luke Weinstock and restaurateur-gallerist Chris Miller’s conversation about where to eat in Paris in winter (Septime, Le Chateaubriand) drifted across the candlelit tables. After dinner, flamenco musician, Jackson Scott, gave us a surprise serenade of Hoagie Carmichael’s Stardust as well as several original Spanish songs. The creative energy that had begun in the kitchen was infectious. Chris’s dinner indeed satiated both our hunger and my desire for a narrative. Chris perfectly summed up my hopes and feelings about the night: “If I am stimulated and think an experience is creative and fun and cool, that is going to be detectable in the flavor…and that’s contagious for everyone involved.”

Guests being serenaded by flamenco musician Jackson Scott
Guests being serenaded by flamenco musician Jackson Scott
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